We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Decrepit D.C. houses have a new home on the Internet.
On a shady hill high above Suitland Parkway SE, two ramshackle old homes crouch side by side in the weeds. They are dark, empty, and ghoulish—the perfect pair of haunted houses. But for Peter Sefton, a 50-year-old federal employee, they look less like the footage of a horror film than a highlight reel of the District’s Victorian architecture.
Sefton discovered the twins on a recent scouting trip to Anacostia. He took pictures of the buildings not to scare children but to educate adults on the dismal fate of D.C.’s deteriorating housing stock. In February, Sefton launched Victoriansecrets.net, a site bursting with high-resolution pictures of the District’s most lurid, stripped-down Victorian-era buildings. The twins now appear on the site along with the images of several other houses.
“What really struck me about one of those houses,” says Sefton, “is that there were all these stones on the roof. A generation of school kids have been throwing rocks at the house, trying to break its remaining windows….If you look closely enough, you see little traces of the neighborhood’s history. That really excites me.”
Despite his itinerant hobby, you won’t find Sefton snapping photos along Embassy Row or ogling manors on 16th Street NW. He goes for the gritty spots in neighborhoods that don’t have historic protection or the aggressive support of neighborhood activists. “Our goal is to show a full screen portrait of one Victorian per week,” writes Sefton, by way of introduction. “This site won’t be much of a beauty pageant because we’ll concentrate on buildings that are vacant, abandoned, deteriorated, distressed, or just plain at risk because they are standing in the path of development.”
Sefton hopes that his site will serve as a memorial of sorts, a way to remember and honor those buildings that don’t survive. “There’s vandalism and neglect and decay attacking these buildings all the time,” he says. “I’m realistic enough to know that most of them won’t make it.
“At Catholic funerals, you get these cards that have a religious picture on one side and the name of the deceased person on the back,” Sefton adds. “You’re supposed to save them, so that you can remember the dead people in your family. My site is kind of like a collection of funeral cards for these buildings.”
Because of an ongoing technical snafu, Sefton doesn’t know precisely how many Web-surfing strangers have discovered his Victorian secrets since February. But the site has yet to crash from congestion.
Sefton maintains the setup with the help of his 14-year-old daughter, Amy, and together they scour the city for hot properties. “She and I get up around dawn on weekend mornings,” says Sefton. “We get a box of Krispy Kreme [doughnuts], grab a camera, and go downtown. Then we camp out in front of a building we like and wait for the sun to rise. We try and take the perfect picture.”
To this day, Sefton remains haunted by the one that got away—a row house in Southeast that was enmeshed in a climbing rose vine. “I really wanted to get a picture of its bright scarlet flowers against the old brick,” says Sefton. “I kept waiting for the right light. I waited one weekend too long. I came back and there was this big hole in the ground. So I’ve become a little bit less of a perfectionist.”
Whatever standards Sefton sets for himself, D.C.’s professional preservationists are swooning in response. Kate Farnham, an architectural historian and the chair of the D.C. Preservation League’s task force on abandoned row houses, recently scoped out the site. “I’m very impressed,” says Farnham. “We’re hoping to work with [Sefton] in the future. I think he’s going to be a valuable resource for us. He gets off the beaten path and finds buildings that people aren’t going to see on their way to work.”
Sefton’s love affair with the District’s old-school houses began about 30 years ago, when he moved here from the suburbs of New York City to attend George Washington University. “Somebody gave me an old bicycle,” recalls Sefton. “When I felt homesick, I’d ride it around the city looking at the old row houses. They reminded me of Brooklyn.”
These days, Sefton lives not in an old District Victorian but in a ’20s-era house in Alexandria. “I lived in quite a few D.C. row houses in college,” says Sefton. “They have their drawbacks. A lot of times they are dark, have small rooms, and are hot in the summer.
“Then again,” he adds, “they’re beautiful.” CP